Blessings program grows as community need grows

Imagine being a child or a teen and being hungry.
During the week you get to eat breakfast and lunch at school, but by Saturday you’re hungry again.

And not just, “I feel like eating a doughnut” hungry, but the gnawing in your stomach, “there’s absolutely nothing in the cupboards or fridge” hunger.
Imagine your mom saying to you, “Don’t worry. Monday morning will be here before you know it and you can eat at school,” but you’re just a kid, and you’re hungry now and it’s hard to concentrate when your stomach hurts.
In September 2009, 45 percent of students in Citrus County were eligible for the free or reduced lunch program.

In a pilot program, Blessings in a Backpack, a nationwide program of USA Harvest and a local program of Citrus County Harvest, provided 46 students at Hernando Elementary School, where 65 percent of the students qualified for free or reduced lunch, with weekly supplemental food items to take home and eat over the weekend.

Joe Adams has been volunteering with Citrus County Blessings since 2016. He stands with Blessings executive director Christina Reed on Wednesday morning, Aug. 2, as a forklift loads two pallets of food onto a trailer pulled away by Adams. The food will be taken to a local church, packed and sent to Rock Crusher Elementary School, where students needing assistance will take the food home on weekends. Matthew Beck Chronicle photo editor

In 2023, 70.6 percent of students in Citrus County qualify for free or reduced lunch, and what is now called Citrus County Blessings provides supplemental take-home food for students in every county public school and several private schools.

As the new school year is about to start, a record 2,640 students are enrolled in the Blessings program for the year.

“Citrus County Blessings has grown significantly,” said Christina Reed, the program’s executive director. “The program’s size increased by 18 percent from the previous school year, resulting in an additional 375 children added to the program.”

This expansion has brought new challenges, Reed said, including the need for more space and better options for ordering and receiving larger quantities of food each month.
Recently, Richard “Hamilton” Rice, the owner of All About IT in Lecanto, contacted Reed and asked about their needs and how he could assist.

“We saw Blessings in need of space, and we had space in a warehouse on our campus,” Rice said. “This is a program that is helping feed our community, so it was an honor to be able to help them.

“We have local businesses that are supported by the community, so we have always felt the need to give back,” he said, adding, “It does take a village!”

Citrus County Blessings Executive Director Christina Reed gets to know Belle, a rescue pet adopted by Blessings volunteer Joe Adams. The animal is the unofficial mascot of the organization that provides food to school students in need. Photos by Matthew Beck / Chronicle photo editor

Reed said the warehouse is conveniently located at the heart of the county, making it an ideal spot for food delivery to the pantries.

Also, the warehouse has a large loading dock that facilitates the delivery of the ordered food. The Blessings staff and volunteers can work around their schedules and have greater flexibility in receiving food and assembling the food orders, ultimately to provide nourishment to the children they serve, Reed said.

In the past, Blessings purchased its food from the Community Food Bank of Citrus County in Homosassa, using its warehouse for storage, sorting, and delivery to the 18 Blessings pantries across the county.

“The food bank is also growing, expanding and extending its services in Hernando County,” Reed said. “As a result, the previous space that was being used is no longer guaranteed.”

Besides a new warehouse location – the Blessings office is still located at the Citrus County Resource Center in Lecanto – the Blessings program has a few other changes.

“Our menu has had some changes,” Reed said. “We are aligning more with USDA recommendations, and we looked at other backpack programs throughout the country to see what they were sending home and adjusted our menu.”

Rachelle Garrett-Butler, Blessings’ operations director, said they’ve added Sysco as a food vendor, giving them the ability to have a bigger variety of food, especially entrees and breakfast items.

“We can get a lot more nutritional items – dried fruit, beef sticks, trail mix, whole grains,” she said.

Another change: The bags filled with food aren’t as heavy, which has been a common comment from students, especially those who take home food for younger siblings.

As Blessings gears up to begin another school year, with Aug. 17 as the year’s first take-home day, Blessings board chairwoman Gail Bockiaro said the entire board is “ecstatic with the continued support of our community.”

“Mr. Rice has stepped up to the plate with his generous donation of warehouse space,” she said. “With this ‘blessing,’ the board can continue to concentrate on fundraising efforts in order to feed the growing number of students that have been added to our roster.”

How to help:It costs $250 to provide one student with weekly supplemental food for one school year.

“Our biggest need is donations to keep our program running,” Reed said. “We ask for monetary donations, because we can stretch a donor dollar a lot further than if they go to the grocery store.”

Reed said a grant from Suncoast Credit Union and regular community donors make the Blessings program possible, as well as their fundraisers, like their Halloween costume ball.